Sundance champ 'Birth of a Nation' chose Fox over Netflix

Nate Parker took a lower bid from Fox Searchlight to get his movie in theaters and schools.

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Elliot Davis
Elliot Davis

This weekend Nate Parker's film The Birth of a Nation won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury and Audience prizes for a drama, just days after signing a record $17.5 million distribution deal with Fox Searchlight. That was in contrast to a number of other flicks that ended up signing with Netflix or Amazon, and there's a reason. While reports from The Wrap and The Hollywood Reporter claim Netflix offered as much as $20 million during an all night bidding war, Parker wanted a large theatrical release for the movie. While Netflix movies are open for theatrical releases, so far they've had extremely limited showings because the company insists on offering them for streaming on the same day -- most theater owners don't want the competition.

Celebration of Independent Voices: Nate Parker

"I've always felt this pull on my art toward activism. That's why I always say I'm an activist first" Filmmaker Nate Parker discusses his film The Birth of a Nation, the power of art to spark change and #Sundance 2016

Posted by Sundance Film Festival on Friday, January 29, 2016

According to Parker, Fox Searchlight is also open to his ideas about showing the movie, focusing on Nat Turner's slave rebellion, at high schools and colleges. His purpose in making the movie is to inspire activism, and he considers himself an activist first. Fox Searchlight could also advertise itself as the studio that took 12 Years A Slave to an eventual Best Picture award. In contrast, while Netflix released the critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation last year, (notching over three million views in a matter of days and winning Idris Elba a supporting actor trophy Saturday at the Screen Actors Guild awards) it didn't snag a single Oscar nomination.

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Another worth noting is Netflix's interaction with the director of Parker's last film. Before taking two years off to make this movie he had a lead role in the romantic film Beyond the Lights. In 2015 its director Gina Prince-Bythewood noted Netflix's "more like this" suggestion algorithm tended to group movies by the racial background of their cast, more than genre.

Netflix exec Ted Sarandos explained that while Beyond the Lights is categorized by its genre and content, the more like this suggestions depend on the statistics of what viewers actually watch the most, and that over time they should broaden. I posed the same question to VP of original content Cindy Holland and chief product officer Neil Hunt, and received a similar answer. Until, or unless, viewers make choices that reflect more diversity there's an internal question over whether Netflix should try to nudge them that way. While this bidding war is already over, I wonder if losing out on a desirable release could spur a change in policy, or at least rekindle the issue. If it can't win in theatrical reach and money doesn't matter, promising that it can market to an audience without imposing antiquated limits could make it an appealing option.

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Sundance champ 'Birth of a Nation' chose Fox over Netflix